Posts tagged with: lord acton

washingtonIf the American Founding got one thing right more than anything, it was its commitment to a broad and liberal religious liberty. In 1790, President George Washington told a Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy; a policy worthy of imitation.”

Currently, the country faces a number of threats to religious liberty and America seems to be squandering its profound moral authority it can offer to a world starving for its example. On the evening of February 4, I’ll address many of these challenges at Acton on Tap in Grand Rapids. The title for the event is “The Growing Threat to Religious Liberty.” If you are local to the area please join us and be prepared to share your own thoughts and insights.

The weakening of religion of course inevitably leads to more centralization and government. Thus, the American Framers clearly saw the need for a strong religious and moral fabric to guarantee liberty. “The people, who are the source of all lawful authority, are inherently independent of all but the moral law,” declared Thomas Jefferson. The framers were concerned that freedom would break down and become less about restraint and more about license.

It is undeniable that one of the gravest problems we face in this country is a misunderstood and disordered view of liberty that permeates society. Lord Acton put it well when he said liberty is “not the power of doing what we like but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

While America has dramatically changed over the centuries, I believe the founding period offers a lot of important lessons today. Religious persecution in America was an ongoing problem at that time, and would remain to degrees, but there was a deep desire to avoid the kind of devastation that fomented religious wars in Europe. I’ll address that more at Acton on Tap. One thing is certain, with all the challenges America now faces in regards to surviving as the home for a free people, it’s ludicrous to believe that is possible without a vibrant morality and a championing of religious liberty.

Painting of 'Render Unto Caesar' by Peter Paul Rubens.

Painting of ‘Render Unto Caesar’ by Peter Paul Rubens.

Richard Weaver, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th Century, and author of Ideas Have Consequences, published an essay in the early 1960s on Lord Acton (pdf only). Much of Weaver’s essay is worth highlighting, but one excerpt in particular reminds us of the central significance of Christianity in the battle for freedom. It reminds us too of the dangers of secularism and where our indifference to God is inevitably leading us.

It was inevitable that, lacking one vital element, the ancient governments should have collapsed into despotism. That vital element was introduced by Christianity. This was belief in the sacredness of the person and thus in a center of power distinct from the state. What the pagan philosophers in all their brilliance had not been able to do, that is, set effective barriers to the power of the state, was done in response to that injuction: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’ This instituted a basis of freedom upon which the world since that time has been able to build.

In Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time, published in 1964, Weaver noted the cure for the ailment of the decline of Western Culture,

But the road away from idolatry remains the same as before; it lies in respect for the struggling dignity of man for his orientation toward something higher than himself which he has not created.

Blog author: rnothstine
Thursday, October 31, 2013
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Luther before the Diet of Worms in 1521.

Luther before the Diet of Worms in 1521.

Martin Luther “did more than any single man to make modern history the development of revolution,” declared Lord Acton. (Lectures on Modern History) The Protestant Reformation profoundly changed the trajectory of Western Civilization. While the Reformation changed every facet of society, it is important to remember that the Protestant Reformers were of course, primarily theologians. In their view, they believed they were recovering truth about God’s Word and revelation to the world.

Today is Reformation Day and many Protestants around the world already have or will celebrate the roots of their churches. But there is also a crisis going on in the West that needs our attention. Whittaker Chambers put it well in Witness , when he declared, “The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God.”

Secularism, but beyond that a general doctrinal disinterest, is not serving Protestants well. Many churchgoers seek out churches according to their ability to entertain. Many are often much more interested in the facilities, its programs, or seeker-friendly style of worship over what the churches actually believe and teach. The Reformers were prepared to die or be martyred for what they believed and taught. It was of primary importance to them. It would certainly seem that especially today, the West, and especially Protestants, have much to learn from these great thinkers and leaders in the Church.

“Western Civilization has begun to doubt its own credentials,” brooded the French novelist, André Malraux (1901-1976). It was men and women of faith who were responsible for a resurgence of Western Civilization. Reformation Day powerfully reminds us that if there is going to be another resurgence of the principles of freedom, liberty, and truth in our society and culture, it will have to come by way of revival and through people of faith. It is the only cure more powerful than the disease of indifference and secularism that is ushering in our demise as a people and culture.

actonLord Acton once said of the American revolution: “No people was so free as the insurgents, no government less oppressive than the government which they overthrew.” It was America’s high view of liberty and its ideas that cultivated this unprecedented freedom ripe for flourishing. Colonists railed over 1 and 2 percent tax rates and were willing to take up arms in a protracted and bloody conflict to secure independence and self-government.

In a chapter on Lord Acton in The Moral Imagination: From Adam Smith to Lionel Trilling, Gertrude Himmelfarb explains how Acton was a historian who saw moral absolutes, and these were the same absolutes Lord Acton found in America’s Framers.

In America, there is certainly a great dearth of moral clarity in today’s political culture and really most of society. I think a large segment of our population certainly feels aimless and fatigued over the trajectory of not just the political debate, but where our nation is headed. As a country that is losing its history, many thirst for a return to first principles and away from the kind of relativistic rot which has become the status quo. Below is an excerpt from Himmelfarb’s book which discusses Lord Acton’s view on the American Revolution:

Although the first tentative overtures toward freedom came in ancient and medieval times, only in modernity, Acton claimed, did it emerge in its true nature. English Protestant sects in the seventeenth-century discovered that “religious liberty is the generating principle of civil, and that civil liberty is the necessary condition of religious.” But not until the American Revolution had “men sought liberty knowing what they sought.” Unlike earlier experiments in liberty, which had been tainted by expediency, compromise, and interest, the Americans demanded liberty simply and purely as a right. The three-pence tax that provoked the revolution was three-pence worth of pure principle. “I will freely spend nineteen shillings in the pound, Acton quoted Benjamin Franklin, “to defend my right of giving or refusing one other shilling.” Acton himself went further. The true liberal, like the American revolutionists, “stakes his life, his fortune, the existence of his family, not to resist the intolerable reality of oppression, but the remote possibility of wrong, of diminished freedom.” The American Constitution was unique in being both democratic and liberal. “It was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant, less against aristocracy and monarchy than against its own weakness and excess. . . . It resembled no other known democracy, for it respected freedom, authority, and law.”

Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) took to the Senate floor yesterday and quoted Lord Acton’s well known dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There’s a partisan bite to his words, but he mostly warns against the grave dangers and tyranny under concentrated and centralized power.

Cornyn of course, is addressing the multitude of scandals blowing up in Washington, many of them linked to the White House. He also admits corruption has been a problem under both political parties. Cornyn says that we need “to restore faith in Washington.” It’s a worthy goal, but perhaps part of the problem is Americans already have too much faith and trust in federal power. The Texas senator concludes by saying we need to “respect the wisdom of the ages when it comes to concentrated power and its impact on individual liberty.”

His remarks, which runs 15 minutes, is worth your attention.

Reading through Scalia Dissents: Writings of the Supreme Court’s Wittiest, Most Outspoken Justice, I came across this gem: “No government official is ‘tempted’ to place restraints upon his own freedom of action, which is why Lord Acton did not say ‘Power tends to purify.'”

The comments from Justice Scalia emerged from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992). A fuller context to his words gives added meaning to the threat to liberty and the rule of law from activist courts:

The Court’s statement that it is “tempting” to acknowledge the authoritativeness of tradition in order to “cur[b] the discretion of federal judges” is, of course, rhetoric rather than reality; no government official is tempted” to place restraints upon his own freedom of action, which is why Lord Acton did not say “Power tends to purify.” The Court’s temptation is in the quite opposite and more natural direction – towards systematically eliminating checks upon its power; and it succumbs.

Jordan Ballor reminded me of a similar Lord Acton quote: “Everybody likes to get as much power as circumstances allow, and nobody will vote for a self-denying ordinance.”

Blog author: dpahman
Friday, September 14, 2012
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In an odd story from Maryland, Ari Ashe of WTOP reports,

Many people find speed cameras frustrating, and some in the region are taking their rage out on the cameras themselves.

But now there’s a new solution: cameras to watch the cameras.

Yes, you read that correctly. Prince George’s County, Maryland, has a problem with people vandalizing their speed cameras and their solution is to install additional cameras to watch them. In response, Michael Rosenwald says what many others surely are thinking: “This is 100 percent ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ crazy.” (more…)